These are unprecedented times, where conventions lose meaning faster as the world around us sublimates as we know it. ‘Business As Usual’ which until a few days back was taken as quotidian, gains a different valency as of today.
The world is in a state of ‘Narrative Collapse’ as events have either been cancelled, postponed as the Tokyo Olympic Games or moved to a Zoom conversation. Such an avalanche of sadness has dawned upon us the office going ‘Janata’ (People in Hindi), that it took Prime Minister Narendra Modi ji, a ‘Janata Curfew’ as a trailer to the 21-day lock down of the country to gauge feedback for the move.
This is decisive leadership, an astute policy analyst studying at Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University in Boston referred over a chat when I was wondering the practicality of the audacious move, while playing the devil’s advocate.
The pandemic as is with any major global disaster is undergirded in a specific political, historical and economic reality. This pandemic, a once in a century rupture in the words of Historian Yuval Noah Harari is a site for contests over meaning.
The viral outbreak started in Wuhan, China, where it has resulted in thousands of infections and countless fatalities. There are numerous media stories about the extent of measures which the Chinese Government has taken to supress the correct information about the nature of the disease outbreak and the spread.
The World Health Organisation or WHO, has developed norms of naming any new virus with an apolitical signifier such as COVID-19 instead of Wuhan Virus. This act of jargon gymnastics however did not stop certain western scientists calling a stomach bug as ‘Delhi Belly’.
I have often pondered if the virus had emerged in an India or Indonesia, would western actors be generous enough, or is the world falling prey to US Dollar Treasury Bond Holding Chinese bully?
There can be a Japanese Encephalitis or a Spanish Flu, but their cant be a Wuhan Virus, as it hurts the Chinese national consciousness. When Africans are called colourful epithets by denizens on the Sino Internet; RenRen and Weibo, those double standards do not bear any accountability.
The Chinese play the ‘People of Colour’ card in the western world in order to ward off racism, however, do not pay forward the favour in their hegemonic spaces in Asia.
There is a targeted China propaganda machine at work which is attempting to deflect attention from complicity in the global train wreck that the pandemic has resulted in. The Chinese are doing everything they can to ‘Save Face’ which is a characteristic Asian quality to save one’s ‘honour’ at any cost.
This information war unleashed upon a suffering world is indicative that the Chinese don’t mind the human cost of a few thousand lives, as they have lost millions during genocidal experiments such as Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
Journalist and China Expert Wade Shepard has written in Forbes, that after the Wuhan Virus subsides there will be a different global supply chain which was already under way pre-Wuhan Virus.
Germans have already spoken of localising critical commodity value chains such as pharmaceuticals as per a Reuters report. The world’s manufacturing base will now be a diversified spectrum.
India, Bangladesh and Vietnam stand to gain from the splintering of China’s one stop shop. This data point would make a lot of sense to investors:
“it now costs manufacturers $6.50 per labour hour in China, which is $1.50 higher than in 2016 and over twice that of Vietnam”
Even Chinese companies have outsourced manufacturing to Indonesia and Cambodia as a part of One Belt One Road or OBOR which is a state led neo-colonial project to de-risk their value chain and to reduce costs.
The question for India is, what can we do to attract these investments out of China and create an Indian ‘Indo-Pacific’ as a tangible counterweight to the Chinese imperial imagination.
The biggest challenge in the narrative architecture building is the presence of Indian left-wing sympathisers in the media who are more loyal to Mao than the wealth loving Chinese themselves. Chairman Deng Xiaoping said at the outset of the opening of the Chinese economy in 1978 on the lines of the Singaporean Developmental Model- “To be Rich is Glorious”.
The Indian leftists often forget this maxim. Of course, one can find a good Malayali Communist in Dubai, Riyadh or Doha attending a cultural event, which is often a proxy indicator for canvassing for votes and funds for elections back home.
Prime Minister Modi with his regional health diplomacy has got the ball rolling with COVID-19, and has a competent team steering foreign policy in New Delhi. However, there needs to be a substantial corpus dedicated to projecting Indian Soft Power via developmental funding, already on the rise with a lot more to be done.
The biggest strength of Chinese Foreign Policy and OBOR as its instrument is the liberal use of cheque book diplomacy without any western human rights baggage.
China although with a large balance of payments with the United States and an ensuing tech trade war, has lost something which money cannot buy, that is trust though it has AliPay and Tencent. The basis of international trade and investment is good old trust.
India has a large economy which is however riddled with challenges. India needs to grow its economy and spend on military hardware to back its soft power. India needs to grab this historic window to balance China as it reels under global criticism for its terrible handling of the Wuhan Virus. It is a once in a generation opportunity.
India, with its diverse democracy has funnelled into massive political capital for Prime Minister Modi has the ammunition to carve the ‘Indo-Pacific’ into a geographic sphere of influence where India carries heft and respect.
In this planetary moment of crisis, triggered by Wuhan Virus, India is well positioned to scale in to its own, as a leader in its greater neighbourhood.
The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.